The New Mosaic
By 2042, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that those groups now considered as racial minorities will comprise the majority of the population.
Add in the rise in older students, increasing student expectations, more students who have full-time jobs, and the difficulties many students have in paying for an education, and it is easy to see that America's educational system faces some significant challenges. What do institutions need to do to resolve these challenges successfully?
Be Willing to Change
Considering one of the primary goals of Higher Education is to educate students who can adapt to a future that is in constant flux, it may seem surprising that institutions are not always willing to embrace change.
- Tradition: Pressures exerted by alumni to preserve traditions can be intense. Often, the memories that alumni have of their schools are distorted or have no place in today's world. However, alumni may insist that traditions remain unaltered if the school expects to receive any funds from former students. If you want proof, you can discuss the issue with university presidents who have sought to de-emphasize athletics or reform the fraternity system.
- Fear: Fear of the unknown can cause even the brave to tremble. Institutions can suffer from the "better the devil you know" syndrome, choosing to support the status quo because the alternative could be worse.
- Competition: The culture of Higher Education is one of competition. Universities compete with each other, department heads compete to protect funding for their own departments, and faculty members compete for tenure. Achieving cooperation or a unified approach to issues is difficult at best.
- Finances: Many institutions simply lack the funds to implement changes. External support is increasingly difficult to secure. Government funding has decreased per capita, corporations are becoming more reluctant to fund projects that do not benefit their bottom line immediately, and many of the major charitable foundations choose to focus on other areas.
- Isolation: There is a disconnect between educators and the politicians who make decisions regarding Higher Education. There may also be little communication with the high schools supplying the institution's students. Issues may never be discussed — much less resolved.
Recognize the Issues
The landscape of higher education has changed. The traditional student now represents a mere 16 percent of the full-time students, yet many institutions still tailor their offerings to this demographic. Non-traditional students have special needs that must be met.
- Many hold full-time jobs, so they need support services and classes that are available online or outside of their normal working hours.
- Non-traditional students are often unable to attend on a full-time basis. They need ways to earn their degrees faster, such as portfolio assessments or streamlined degree plans.
- Because they are typically responsible for their own tuition, many non-traditional students require financial assistance. Institutions need to promote their financial aid departments and make sure that all students know how to apply. Furthermore, institutions should stop replacing need-based scholarships with merit scholarships if the only goal is to boost the school's national rankings through test scores.
- Recognize that racial or ethnic minorities may not feel comfortable on campus. This is especially true if faculty and staff lack diversity, so whenever possible, staffs should be proportionately diverse.
- Respect cultural differences. Student bodies are comprised of people of various religions and societies. What may be acceptable behavior in mainstream America may be a breach of etiquette in another culture.
- Special effort may be needed to make sure that minority students experience a sense of belonging. Students from families in which no one attended college and those who began their education in another country may question whether they belong on the campus.
The Higher Ed system in America is going to need to guide the nation through the challenges posed by the 21st century. First, however, they must address their own challenges.
It may seem daunting, but the nation still has one of the best educational systems in the world — no doubt it could rise to the task.